UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon addressed an enlarged meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s Permanent Council at its Moscow headquarters on April 22. Analysts view this as an important milestone.
Russia has been working for years to win official international recognition for this supranational organization, especially from NATO and the United Nations. We have not yet had much luck with NATO, although its members’ attitudes are becoming more flexible as Afghanistan continues to destabilize. Cooperation with the UN is expanding, albeit slowly. An official agreement was signed in spring 2010, and now Ban Ki-Moon has cited potential areas for cooperation, including anti-drug and anti-terrorism efforts, as well as support for peace and stability.
This certainly means progress. But it also means a new challenge: the CSTO still has to grow into a fully-fledged military-political alliance capable of performing its declared functions.
The CSTO, formerly known as the Tashkent Treaty, has been a loose club of “Russia’s friends” for two decades; it required no special commitments and that seemed to suit everyone just fine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the CSTO assumed a loose coordinating role, but, more importantly, it created the illusion of a cooperative force to be reckoned with — or, at least that was the illusion Moscow cherished.
But now the time for role play is over. Growing uncertainty in Afghanistan and the ever more fragile stability of Central Asia have made an effective regional security system a vital necessity — something the CSTO was not prepared for.
Moscow’s relations with its allies are unstable, especially with Uzbekistan which, as the strongest military power in this part of Eurasia, should be playing a leading role in the alliance.
It is also unclear what roles Belarus and Armenia should play, since they have no interest in Central Asia and it is difficult to imagine them taking an active role in military operations, say, on the Tajik-Afghan border. Belarus is using its CSTO membership to pressure Russia for economic privileges.
On the other hand, these two countries face security problems of their own. Belarus’s relations with the West are rather strained, to put it mildly, while Armenia is formally at war with Azerbaijan. Therefore, Russia is working to bolster bilateral security ties with both allies, conducting joint military exercises with Belarus on a larger scale every year, and extending the deployment of Russia’s military base in Armenia to 2045. Also, Russian border guards will now patrol the entire Armenian border, amounting to a guarantee against Azerbaijan, not only against Turkey as before.
The CSTO first experienced difficulty in passing shared decisions last year, when ethnic violence flared in southern Kyrgyzstan. Strictly speaking, the CSTO’s competence does not extend to members’ internal affairs. But the fighting in Kyrgyzstan did pose a threat to regional stability, and the violence was mainly aimed against ethnic Uzbeks — kin to the residents and leaders of the neighboring state.
Surprisingly, none of the neighboring states showed much enthusiasm about helping stabilize the “hotspot,” nor did they like the idea of Russia acting independently to those ends. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were more concerned that any such action could create a precedent for Russian intervention in their internal affairs, should unrest flare or a similar scenario arise within their own borders. Uzbekistan’s policy is to retain CSTO membership while at the same time enjoy strategic independence and keep open the possibility of broad cooperation with the United States and NATO.
It seems that relations between the CSTO allies can only stabilize and broaden when the Central Asian member states sense a definite threat from the south. The turmoil in northern Afghanistan, formerly the most stable part of the country and now a seat of radical sentiment (seven UN workers were killed in an attack on the UN Mission in Mazar-e-Sharif,) is certainly raising concerns at governmental level across Central Asia. They must surely realize that only Russia is in a position to guarantee their security should real force majeure circumstances arise.
CSTO reforms should therefore be among Russia’s security policy priorities in the near future. A more effective CSTO could be a weighty argument in negotiating with NATO and the United States, which need a reliable partner in Central Asia. But most importantly, Russia must take pro-active measures because any further destabilization south of its borders will inevitably seep across into its own territory.